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Generations bookend Rural America

Rural youth and elderly hold their own, but rural areas lag in working age young adults. Rural America’s greatest exports are our young people. It is crucial for rural communities and public policy to find new, innovative ways to create rural economic opportunities and revitalize rural economies.  

A Center for Rural Affairs report finds that rural areas in the Great Plains and Midwest continue to lose population and are caught between “bookend generations” - the youngest and the oldest - with a demographic valley in between.

“Increasingly, rural America’s greatest exports are our young people. We send them off to college and hope they return home after graduation, and often they want to return but if the jobs and economic opportunity are not here they will be drawn to the opportunity and bright lights of the city,” said Jon Bailey, author of the report and Research Director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska.

The distribution of population by age further demonstrates what is happening to population in rural areas of the region, Bailey continued. Rural areas hold their own with urban areas in proportion of population of their youngest residents. But as the youngest residents turn 20 and age into their 30s and mid-40s, the prime working years, rural populations compared to urban populations begin to lag. This is a significant illustration of the lack of economic opportunities in many rural places in the region.

The report, Age Distribution on the Great Plains, is the second in a series of briefs examining data from the 2010 Census. The analysis covers a 10 state region that includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa and selected counties in Colorado, Montana, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded at:

“The age distribution of the region’s population has significant implications for the region both immediately and in the long-term,” said Bailey. “The relative youth of the urban areas of the region affects the economics of the entire region. Investment to create economic opportunities is likely to flow into urban areas of the region to capitalize on the youth and education there. Conversely, the aging of rural areas of the region (nearly half of the rural population is 45 years of age and older) and the relatively large population of the youngest residents means for those “bookend generations” rural areas must focus on a different set of issues that are critical to both, such as health care and education.”

In order to reverse rural America’s “brain drain” trend, it is crucial for rural communities and public policy to find new, innovative ways to create rural economic opportunities and revitalize rural economies,” said Bailey.

A 2007 Center for Rural Affairs analysis demonstrated that USDA and Congress have severely over-subsidized the biggest and most powerful farms while consistently under-investing in rural economic development, spending twice as much on subsidizing the 20 largest farms in each of 13 leading farm states as it invested in rural development programs to create economic opportunity for millions of people in thousands of towns in the 20 rural counties with the most out-migration in each respective state - (the full report - An Analysis of USDA Farm Program Payments and Rural Development Funding In Low Population Growth Rural Counties, a.k.a. Over subsidizing and under investing... can be viewed or downloaded at:

According to Bailey, federal contributions to rural development have been plummeting for years – almost one-third of the USDA Rural Development budget has been cut since 2003. And Congress is considering making even further cuts to already bare-bones rural development programs. For example, one-third of the funds for the popular Value Added Producer Grant could be taken away, as well as all the money for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program. The USDA only uses about 1.7 percent of its budget for rural development, equaling about $40.68 for every rural resident.

The Center for Rural Affairs proposes that instead of continuing the Brain Drain trend, a Rural Renewal Initiative should be created in the next farm bill and Congress should commit $500 million over five years to a Community Prosperity Fund that the Secretary of Agriculture could spend in existing rural development programs. New opportunities are arising all the time in broadband, renewable energy, food systems and ecotourism, and this investment could breathe new life and capital into communities suffering population loss.

Moreover, this investment could be fully paid for by tightening the limits on farm payments received by the largest farmers – a policy the Center for Rural Affairs has advocated for many years. It could also be paid for by reducing direct farm payments by just 2 percent. Though $100 million dollars per year is small in the context of farm bill spending, it would represent a significant and much-needed increase for rural development.

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